When you think of the Cardinals, you think of Pujols. He's the face of the franchise.
And yet as Spring Training is about to open for the Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla., he and the team have been unable to reach agreement on a contract extension. Negotiations could end.
Pujols, who reports to camp on Feb. 16, has vowed not to continue talks once he begins workouts. He doesn't want that distraction. He has a no-trade clause in his current contract and says he will not agree to any trade proposal.
When teams are unable to sign potential free agents they often attempt to trade them during their "walk" seasons.
The inference is if Pujols, arguably the best player in the Major Leagues, doesn't get an extension, he'll become a free agent after the season.
Somehow, some way, I don't believe the Cardinals should or will let this saga go that far.
I may be way off, but I think this is really a soft deadline, a negotiating stand for Pujols and his respected agent, Dan Lozano. Both sides want to get it done.
I commend both Cardinals general manager John Mozelink and Lozano for not carrying out negotiations in the media. Little has been said about the talks except that there is no agreement in sight. That's the way it should be.
No matter how this ends, it's going to be costly for the Cardinals -- either because of the money they must spend to sign Pujols, or the enormous backlash expected from the fans if they don't.
I agree this will be a difficult decision for the Cardinals and their financial gurus. They must balance the overall cost to sign Pujols versus what it will ultimately cost the franchise in fan support and public relations if they let him walk.
This was one of baseball's greatest franchises before Albert arrived, and it will be one if and when he leaves.
St. Louis fans are some of the best in the Major Leagues -- durable and dedicated.
By the same token, they've fallen in love with Pujols -- on the field and off. He has attached himself to the region and, even during these negotiations, has said all the right things. He wants to remain in St. Louis.
In a much lesser scenario, I remember about this time in 1972 when Steve Carlton was in a bitter contract dispute with the Cardinals for far fewer dollars. He was an up-and-coming future Hall of Famer, pitching in the shadow of Bob Gibson. A stalemate developed and, as Spring Training opened, Carlton was traded to Philadelphia for Rick Wise.
That was four years before free agency arrived in baseball, but Carlton went on to become one of the greatest left-handers in the history of the game and the first pitcher to win four Cy Young Awards.
I'm certain if the Cardinals had it to do over again they would have worked out a deal and not let Carlton leave.
Pujols is in the final season of a $111 million, eight-year deal. This is the option year of that deal and will pay him $16 million. He is undoubtedly looking for a contract similar to the 10-year, $275 million pact the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez after the 2007 season. Pujols, 31, compares his numbers to A-Rod's and easily comes to the conclusion he's worth just as much.
So, he's in line to receive the most lucrative contract in baseball history. His numbers support that assumption. And when the Red Sox signed Carl Crawford for $142 million, and the Nationals gave Jayson Werth $126 million in December, it certainly pushed the bar even higher for Pujols.
In 10 seasons he has won the National League Most Valuable Player Award three times, has a .331 career batting average and averaged 43 doubles, 41 homers and 123 runs batted in. His is the finest start to a career in the history of baseball.
He's also won six Silver Slugger Awards, is a two-time Gold Glove winner and has been selected to nine All-Star games in his 10 seasons.
Last year he batted .312, hit 42 homers and drove in 118 runs.
There's one huge difference, however, between the Pujols situation and A-Rod's: The Yankees' revenues are far greater than the Cardinals'.
Cards owner Bill DeWitt told SI.com late last year that he thought the Yankees must regret A-Rod's deal, indicating it wasn't something he wanted to use as a comp for Pujols.
The Cardinals' 2010 payroll was approximately $94 million and is projected to be a shade over $100 million this season. By comparison, the Yankees' 2010 payroll was more than $213 million.
If Pujols becomes a free agent, all of the teams with deep pockets will be standing in line to make him offers -- even those with All-Star first basemen.
The Yankees have Mark Teixeira and the Red Sox just traded for Adrian Gonzalez.
That won't stop them for making a pitch for Pujols. They'll find a place for the best player in the game.
But I don't think it'll come to that.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.